A review of Alan Garner’s latest novel.
This book confused me, I admit, but I loved it. The more I try to explain it to people the better I understand it, the greater the depth of my thoughts, and the more it inspires me. I think all books are like that, your appreciation improving through interpretation and sharing, but for some this is essential in order to unlock their secrets (Ulysses anyone?) Boneland isn’t an easy book to read. Parallel narratives are explored with little indication as to why, questions are left unanswered, and the lines between reality, fantasy, madness and theory are only faintly drawn, but it is definitely worth it.
Colin, a psychologically troubled but brilliant astrophysicist, is searching for his lost twin sister amongst the Pleides (a distant constellation). No, seriously. Juxtaposed with this is the story of The Watcher, a prehistoric shaman trying to stop the world from dying. He dances a lot. Colin’s narrative is punctuated with episodes of mental breakdown, but in being interspersed with the poetic ‘madness’ of The Watcher, you begin to doubt whether such outbreaks can be labelled so easily; he may be more closely linked to The Watcher than we realise (time, of course, not really being linear. Obviously). It’s frustrating not knowing exactly what is going on, but also strangely liberating – how often these days do you come across literature that is, like poetry, open to interpretation?
I’m interested in prehistoric archaeology (particularly the Neolithic period, as it has all the fun stuff like barrows and stone circles), so this was right up my street. Colin provides fascinating academic insights into this, through conversations he has with his unconventional therapist, but we are also able to explore an idea of the prehistoric mindset through The Watcher. The way these scientifically explained wonders could impact upon the beliefs of prehistoric man is considered, but we are also invited to contemplate the reverse; that science has mistakenly simplified things. Someone pompously told me once that science is the latest religion. More than being merely a metaphor for people’s blind faith in science though, this idea forces us to question the ‘truth’ and motives of science – something we often take for granted through over-confidence in our own supremacy.
It’s an interesting combination, archaeology and astrophysics, and raises more questions than the narrative alone can answer. Thank goodness! I’m getting quite sick of being told that everything has to make sense in novels, so three cheers for Alan Garner. This could never be a debut novel, of course, for that very reason, but it reminded me that it’s okay for literature to make us think.
Does anyone else enjoy ‘challenging’ fiction, or do you catch a whiff of pretension and elitism when you encounter it?
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Tags: book, review, Boneland, Alan Garner, archaeology, literature